A long time ago here in the hometown Mom would mention that her father, my grandfather Dave McCann, back in the day had been a justice of the peace. It didn’t mean much to me, as a kid. I didn’t know just what was a justice of the peace.
Then one day Mom said a magic word. And I perked up.
She said, “books.”
I loved books. These days I love web sites. But back then I had to settle for books.
Mom said Grandpa had two shelves filled with old law and veterinary books. Grandpa treated the neighborhood’s livestock, with no trained veterinarian around.
“I wonder whatever happened to all of those books?” Mom wondered aloud.
So the next Sunday we headed over to Austin and asked Grandma about Grandpa’s books. He died three months before I was born.
“Well, you can go out and see.” Grandma said.
I followed them out to a storage shed. A long shelf on the north side was littered with a number of old, discarded and forgotten farm tools and things. And there were two books: a law book and the last of Grandpa’s justice-of-the-peace docket books. I still have them.
A 1931 house fire probably destroyed the rest.
Justices of the peace were predecessors of court magistrates. Grandpa, one of two JPs for Traphill township, would hold court on his front porch or, in winter, his living room, they said. He’d hear complaints in minor cases like trespass, assault and such.
His surviving docket book recounts 30 criminal and two civil cases from 1931-36. I found the stories enlightening and sometimes amusing. Many of the cases involved family or neighbor squabbles.
My aunt, the late Fay Sturgill, told me one time that she did much of the writing starting when she was 9 because Grandpa said “girls could do it better.” So excuse all the youthful misspellings and stilted language.
From the docket book, one of my favorite cases was dated Dec. 1, 1935. One Porter Norman – the star of the book – was charged with “coming into the Holiness Church in time of service drunk and disturbing the service after being heretofore notified to stay away from there.”
Norman was found guilty and sentenced to 30 days in jail — the maximum sentence a JP could impose – suspended for six months, plus court costs.
They tell a family story about the Norman brothers that is not in the docket book. On a Christmas Eve one of them walked into Grandpa’s house naked and crawled into a bed.
My uncle, Blaine McCann, and his brother were boys and in the bed. One time I got my uncle to recount the story again for me.
Porter and brother Taft had gotten into a drunken fight and had torn each other’s clothes about off. A path connecting two roads came through Grandpa’s yard. Taft came in the house through an unlocked kitchen door, dropped his shirt – his remaining piece of clothing – passed one bedroom, entered the next one and got in bed between the two boys.
Grandpa lit a lamp (no electricity then), dragged the naked man out of the bed and onto the front porch and kicked him in the rear. Porter was there pleading, “Mister McCann, don’t shoot Taft, don’t shoot Taft,” my uncle quoted Porter.
Uncle quoted Grandpa as saying that if Taft had gotten in bed naked with the two girls in the first bedroom, he would have.
Grandpa’s docket book provides a snapshot of a raw time with accounts of fights, drunkenness and petty thefts – stories that you won’t find in conventional history books.
Here’s a sampling of cases, complete with misspellings:
* March 23, 1931: Porter Norman threatening a woman “by cuting out her guts with a knife in his hand.”
* July 5: “enter in perdue barn intockocaling and with liker in his persoxin.”
* Aug. 5: in a church, “use in deasent laungry and talking out at a boisters rate when asked to hush by pastor.”
* Jan. 18, ‘32: “Take and carry away two hens from a Spicers hen house at night time.”
* March 4, ‘33: “curshing him and abusing him and removing halter from his cow … with intent to rob him of his cow.”
* June 10, ‘35: “Live together and keeping a disorderly house not being legally married.”
* June 6, ‘36: Defendant Lonnie Smith did “assault Charlie Smoot by striking him with his fist.” Smith was the township constable. I was told that the two had gotten into a fight over politics. Smith was declared guilty. The fine was $1 plus court costs.
The next time you think the things shown on reality-TV police shows these days are awful, just remember — it’s nothing new.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.